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Editorial: Burning issue

A member of the Canadian Armed Forces flying over British Columbia looks at wildfires in the distance.
A member of the Canadian Armed Forces flying over British Columbia looks at wildfires in the distance.

Every province in Canada must come to grips with the fact that climate change is a leading factor behind the disastrous forest fires raging in Western Canada. And we should do what we can to be prepared, because similar events could happen here.

As we have seen in Alberta and British Columbia, fires can turn into dangerous catastrophes in very short time, threatening people, wildlife and property.

Last summer in Atlantic Canada was hot and dry. Bans on burning and campfires were widespread. Conditions this year are more moderate so far, but a prolonged dry spell could make things very dangerous, very quickly.

There are two events at play in Western Canada. Fort McMurray has a key role in Alberta’s oil sands industry — a contributing factor in climate change. The disaster that razed much of Fort McMurray last year makes it imperative to recognize the connection between human-influenced climate change and wildfires.

The Fort McMurray inferno, which broke out May 1, 2016, was the worst and costliest wildfire in Canadian history. It forced the evacuation of approximately 90,000 people, destroyed thousands of homes and buildings and forced the shutdown of oil sands operations.

The fire spread across approximately 590,000 hectares — an area larger than Prince Edward Island — before it was brought under control. Man likely started the fire, but the conditions were directly related to climate change. An unusually hot, dry air mass was in place over Northern Alberta that month, which brought record-setting temperatures to Fort McMurray, hitting over 32 C for days, along with high winds and low humidity. It was a recipe for disaster.

B.C. has declared a state of emergency this month as more than 200 wildfires burn across that province.

Ironically, B.C. is partly responsible for its heightened forest fire threat.

The province has been so successful at putting out wildfires in recent decades that denser forests have developed, with a lot of dead material on the ground. Now, when the province has increasingly regular hot, dry weather, wildfires are much more severe.

B.C. tried to protect its forests from wildfires, but instead created a situation where they’re much more susceptible and the fires are more damaging.

And fire-friendly weather conditions, once considered the exception, will soon become average, based on climate change predictions.

Eastern provinces are taking some action. For example, this week, Newfoundland and Labrador unveiled a new tool to help stop forest fires before they start — an online forest fire hazard map that provides real-time information about the risk of wildfires throughout the province.

Hot, dry weather patterns are projected to occur longer and earlier in B.C, Alberta and elsewhere in the country. We must take steps to combat climate change, and to manage our forests more wisely and safely.

If not, it could be us having to sound the alarm.

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